Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Queen

The Queen; drama, UK, 2006; D: Stephen Frears, S: Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Helen McCrory

In '97, Diana, Princess of Wales, dies in a car crash in Paris. While the new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is swift on offering condolences to the public, at the other side of the spectrum, Queen Elizabeth II wants to stay formal and not comment on the issue, among others because she was never at good terms with Diana. As the public is turning against the Royal Family, Blair manages to persuade the Queen to make a public statement and show herself in front of the public, much to her dismay. After the funeral, Blair and the Queen talk about the future of the country.

"The Queen" is a correct, but boring and forgettable biopic that stubbornly refuses to explore the interesting part of the story (the life of Princess Diana and her relationship with the Royal family) and instead just depicts the most uninteresting clog in all this scheme, Queen Elizabeth II, even though there is not much to see in her, anyway. Helen Mirren is great in the leading role, but there are limits to her performance as well in the thin character of the Queen, who is like a lifeless rock, a robot who only serves the rules and customs, which does not make for an engaging storyline. The film works the best when it depicts the magnitude of the event of Diana's funeral, with thousands of people crying on the street or angrily pointing out that the flag is not on half-staff on the palace, upon which Tony Blair points out at the insensitivity of the Royal family: "We must save them from themselves!" However, except for a few standard comical puns ("Did the Queen grease the breaks of the car?", asks someone after the infamous car crash), there is not much to justify why the viewers should be spending their time watching this particular aspect of the story. The Queen remained a one-dimensional character, and except for two brief moments (her mourning after a killed deer; her final speech in front of Blair, telling him that serving the public comes first, and her self last), she is more appropriate as a supporting character than a leading one. The whole movie is solid, but just as the Queen gets stuck with her jeep in the middle of the river, "The Queen" itself runs out of steam after 40 minutes and turns into a stranded, broken car that does not know where to go in all of this.

Grade;+

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Altered States

Altered States; science-fiction / horror, USA, 1980; D: Ken Russell, S: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore

Eddie Jessup is a young scientist who is fascinated with altered states of consciousness and thus spends hours in dark, isolated chambers filled with water in order for his colleague, Arthur, to record his subconscious brain activity through the lab instruments. Eddie meets anthropologist Emily and they marry. Several years later, Eddie has a mind shattering hallucination induced through a Mexican drug, and thus returns back to Boston to analyze the substance with Arthur and Mason. These trips cause Eddie to lose his mind, and he imagines to be a caveman who kills a goat in the Zoo. Emily begs him to stop with the experiment, but Eddie is determined to continue. Finally, realizing that there is nothing behind these primordial states, Eddie abandons them and declares that he loves Emily.

Paddy Chayefsky's final screenplay was an unworthy farewell to the brilliant screenwriter's career, an inarticulate mess of a movie that is equally as inconsistent thematically and narratively as the bizarre, grotesque hallucinations that it depicts on the screen. Loosely based on the experiments of neuroscientist John C. Lilly, "Altered States" cannot cope with its own terms as what it wants to be: first it mentions Eddie's religious beliefs when he was younger, then to move to his exploration of primeval thought circuits, then to switch to his mental degeneration, all of which do not lead to any point, except for the protagonist to suddenly proclaim his love for Emily towards the end. Even in the sequence where he transforms into a cave-man who is in a Zoo, behind bars, only to transform back to a human, only to be arrested and sent to jail, behind bars, the movie refuses to draw some parallels towards our modern society or deliver a commentary on the human culture. Nor does it offer a scientific approach, instead relying on pseudoscience which today seems rather dated. A bizarre patchwork that is just an excuse for surreal hallucinations (a crucified man on a cross wearing a goat's head; phantasmagorical bubbles; Eddie imagining that his hand is mutating...), of which only two are expressionistic-poetic (the remarkable "flow-of-time" moment of Eddie and his naked wife lying on the ground, while they are slowly covered by a wind of sand, as if they are slowly fading in time; the "whirlpool" in the laboratory), which signalled a symbolic end to these "drug hallucination" films that started in the 60s, since they themselves dissolved into experimental films in search for a point.

Grade;+

Friday, December 8, 2017

Don't Torture a Duckling

Non si sevizia un paperino; thriller, Italy, 1972; D: Lucio Fulci, S: Tomas Milian, Barbara Bouchet, Marc Porel, Florinda Bolkan, Irene Papas, George Wilson

A small town in the Italian South. Three little boys occasionally go to a desolate hut and peek to watch two locals who hire prostitutes for sex. Not long after that, one by one, the three boys are found dead. The police arrests a local idiot, Barro, but it seems he only found the corpse of one boy and decided to blackmail the parents to pay him money. A witch is the next scapegoat, who is beaten to death by some men at a graveyard. The murders continue, though. A reporter from Milan, Martelli, and a woman, Patrizia, team up to investigate. They discover that a mute child, Malvina, ripped the head of a rubber duck, and suspect she imitated the murder she observed. It turns out that a local priest, Don Alberto, is the serial killer, because he wants to prevent boys from discovering sexuality. Alberto atempts to throw Malvina from a cliff, but Martelli stops this and instead throws the priest down to his death.

Even though it is ostensibly a typical "giallo" film, "Don't Torture a Duckling" is also one giant allegory at the neurotic relation of Catholicism towards human sexuality, thus delivering also a somewhat wider, thought provocative topic in this social commentary in which the serial killer is the priest who kills preadolescent boys in order to stop them from exploring sexuality. Even though some critics attacked director Lucio Fulci for "anti-Catholicism", the story has much wider implications, tackling fundamentalism as a chore problem where some people are willing to use crimes and violence just to keep their rules, arguing that such a path can eventually lead to the extinction of an entire generation. This addendum gives the typical thriller genre a richer dimension, though it still has a few problems, most notably in Fulci's tendency to use exploitation methods in some violent sequences, some of which almost end up trashy, as in the scene of priest's falling down the cliff or the sequence of some men crippling a witch at the graveyard with violent blows. Likewise, the story takes a while until it figures out who is suppose to be the protagonist, since the episodic narrative constantly switches from perspective to perspective. Similarly like Chabrol, Fulci uses a crime story as an examination of a society and has rather good camera drives in some scenes, but also likes to film some "naughty" moments that border on the limits of censorship, most notably in the unusual sequence in which a blond woman, Patrizia, enjoys "tickling" the erotic imagination of a 10-year old boy, Michele, when she insists that he should look at her naked body while she is sitting on a chair, while he is serving her orange juice.

Grade;++

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann; drama / comedy, Germany / Austria / Romania, 2016; D: Maren Ade, S: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Ingrid Bisu, Lucy Russell, Vlad Ivanov

Winfried Conradi is retired, but still enjoys pulling pranks on people. After his old dog dies, he decides to travel to Bucharest to visit his estranged daughter, Ines, who works abroad as a manager for an oil company and rarely has time for anything else. After a few weird gags, Ines persuades Winfried to go back home because she is preparing herself for an important business meeting. However, he returns with wig and fake teeth, presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" in front of all the guests at a party. Ines sees right through his mask, but Winfried still insists on playing this persona and accompanying her to meetings. After a nude party goes wrong, Ines runs after her father in a kukeri costume and hugs him. They return home to her grandmother's funeral.

One of the most overhyped European movies of 2016, "Toni Erdmann" is a strange patchwork that has a point revolving around a quirky father trying to renew a relation with his estranged daughter, yet it takes way too strange directions and dead ends to finally get there, and is not that particulary funny, either. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie is definitely overlong and required better editing since at least an hour could have been cut from the 'empty walk' to make it more concise, whereas several scenes seem to have been invented and improvised on the spot, since many of them play absolutely no role in the storyline later on or lead nowhere. One example of a weird sequence that just screams "deleted scene"  is the one where Ines and a guy cuddle, but she orders him to masturbate and ejaculate on a cupcake, which she then eats. Strange does not always necessarily mean funny. The whole concept also makes no sense: why would Winfried insist on carrying a disguise and presenting himself as "Toni Erdmann" to everyone if a) his daughter immediately recognizes him and b) he is in Bucharest where nobody knows him, anyway? If Toni Erdmann acts the same as Winfried, what's the point of it all? There are two good jokes in the film: one is where Winfried goes to a bathroom, there is a photo of a tiger on the toilet seat and the man of the house jokes: "Watch out, he bites!"; the other is when Winfried barges in the house of a Romanian family and spontaneously starts playing "Greatest Love of All" on the piano to announce his daughter as "Whitney Schnuck", and she actually accepts and sings the entire song in front of the family. There are echoes of transience, the emptiness of modern business life and death, yet these 'ambitious art-themes' cannot compensate entirely for a lack of good writing. "Toni Erdmann" is difficult to understand, but it has a good underlying theme: the father tries to conjure up embarrassing situations for his daughter in order to "throw her" out of her boring balance, her grey routine, so that she can awaken feelings from which she distanced herself a long time ago. This enables her to take back the control of her life, and stop being led by artificial rules, which somewhat gives a sense to this weird movie.

Grade;++

Monday, December 4, 2017

Smoke

Smoke; drama, USA, 1995; D: Wayne Wang, S: Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Harold Perrineau, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Jared Harris, Ashley Judd

Auggie is the owner of a small tobacco shop store and friends with a writer, Paul Benjamin, whose wife has been killed a few years ago by a criminal. Paul is saved by an African-American teenager, Thomas, from a truck on the street, so Paul offers him to stay at his apartment. However, Paul finds out that Thomas allegedly witnessed a bank robbery and took a package that was dropped, which contained 5,814$. The criminal "Creeper" is thus searching for him. Thomas finds a job at Auggie's place, but the water from the sink ruins the store's cigars. In order to make it up to him, Thomas gives 5,000$ to Auggie, who in turn gives the money to his ex-girlfriend, Ruby, who claims that he is the father of her 18-year old daughter. Thomas meets his long lost father, Cyrus Cole, an auto mechanic, and they make up. Finally, Auggie tells Paul a Christmas story.

One of the surprise early hits by independent production company Miramax, "Smoke" is a relaxed and casual 'slice-of-life' anthology that follows the lives of ordinary people in a Brooklyn neighborhood. It does not aim to demonstrate some high concept or a higher movie knowledge, which might set some viewers off, yet its unassuming characters and situations offer just enough to keep the attention of the public. Some episodes work better, some less, but all are delivered with the same enthusiasm by excellent actors Harvey Keitel and William Hurt, as Auggie and Paul, respectively. Writer Paul Auster could have delivered better dialogues with a point, though. One of the more interesting features is when Paul and Thomas are talking about an alleged anecdote, a one wheret Mikhail Bakhtin used the pages of his own manuscript to roll them into cigarettes during the siege of Leningrad, debating if a writer would ever destroy his own work just for a smoke, or when Auggie is making a photo of a street crossing each morning at the exact same time for 4,000 days, from the 70s, in order to capture a giant time lapse of the change of the people in his album. A lesser subplot involves a typical, cliche family reunion of Thomas and his long lost father, Cyrus: despite a great performance by Forest Whitaker, who plays him with a hook, the segment seems routine and already seen a thousand time in various melodramas. It is all circled out by a 10-minute sequence in which Auggie tells Paul a rather touching Christmas story, a one where he chased after a shop lifter who dropped his wallet, and then went to the latter's adress just to meet the robber's frail grandmother and spend the holiday with her. "Smoke" is like hanging out with good friends: outsiders may find the anecdotes boring, but those who are willing to get involved may discover that they actually have a nice time.

Grade;+++

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Sunset Limited

The Sunset Limited; drama, USA, 2011; D: Tommy Lee Jones, S: Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson

New York. A janitor saved the life of a professor who wanted to commit suicide by jumping in front of a subway train. In the janitor's apartment, the janitor tries to talk the professor out of repeating that again. Their views are different: the professor is pessimistic, an atheist and a nihilist who think that life has no purpose, while the janitor is an ex-convict who believes in God and thinks that all the troubles have a purpose and a conclusion in the end. Finally, the professor leaves the apartment, unimpressed, and it is unknown is he will try to commit suicide again.

Tommy Lee Jones' 4th directorial work is an highly unusual, minimalistic chamber play that unravels only inside one location, an apartment, and only between two nameless people talking to each other, yet, unlike similar "My Diner with Andre", "The Sunset Limited" was not so completely philosophically deep to truly cover for such a thin concept and keep the viewers engaged until the end. Jones and Samuel L. Jackson play basically two opposing philosophies at life which are at clash from the dawn of the age of Englightenment: the atheist, cold, rational and depressive one vs. the religious, faith-based Leibnizian optimism. Their dialogues are what the movie is made off, yet too much of them end up too lengthy without a clear point or a purpose. One of the best moments is when the janitor tells his story about how the beat up a prison convict to a cripple, which made him change and become religious, only for the professor to mock him that a man actually had to be turned into a cripple just for him to find God. This existentialist art-film is not for everyone, especially not for who annot concentrate, but it has a few interesting quotes that stimulate into thinking ("Moral-leper colony"; "You give up the world line by line..."; "Show me a religion that prepares one for nothingness, for death. That's a church I might enter. Yours prepares one only for more life, for dreams and illusions and lies. Banish the fear of death from men's hearts and they wouldn't live a day."; "The darker picture is always the correct one. When you read the history of the world you are reading a saga of bloodshed and greed and folly the import of which is impossible to ignore. And yet we imagine that the future will somehow be different.").

Grade;++

Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Return of Katarina Kožul

Povratak Katarine Kožul; drama, Croatia / Germany, 1989; D: Slobodan Praljak, S: Alma Prica, Mustafa Nadarević, Jadranka Matković, Fabijan Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Annemarie Wendl

Herzegovina. Vinko and Katarina get married and get a child, but the unemployment in the area in unbearable. Vinko decides to emigrate to Germany to find work and support the family, but plagued by loneliness and depression, he commits suicide by jumping off a construction building. Katarina thus has to emigrate to Germany herself to find work, and meets an Italian man, Silvio, with whom she stays pregnant. He is unwilling to have a baby with her, so she has an abortion. She brings her son to Germany, but a sense of isolation from her homeland is slowly destroying her. Her grandparents hold a funeral for her when she returns dead in Herzegovina.

One of only four films directed by Slobodan Praljak, this "Gastarbeiter" social drama is a boring soap opera with too much empty walk and too little true ingenuity or something more that would engage the viewers throughout its overstretched running time of 100 minutes. Since one of the characters, Vinko, is eliminated fairly quickly, after some 20 minutes, it is not quite clear why his segment was not cut entirely to enable the movie to start right from the title heroine's emigration to Germany in order to find work abroad. The dialogues are predictable, sterile, humorless and lifeless, whereas the storyline is flat, without any richer stratification of events, yet one must acknowledge that the author gathered a surprisingly quality cast, ranging from Alma Prica up to always excellent Ivo Gregurevic, whereas there are some traces of truth and genuine sadness in the seemingly neverending cursed fate of the Yugoslav area, where every generation has to leave their family to find work in a foreign country, which in the end slowly consumes them all, obvious when Katarina says that she is "tired of life". It is interesting that one of the characters, Vinko, commits suicide, which is indicative since director Praljak followed suit when he himself spectacularly took his own life 18 years later at the ICTY.

Grade;+

Friday, December 1, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron; fantasy action, USA, 2015; D: Joss Whedon, S: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, James Spader (voice), Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

The Avengers, consisting out of Tony Stark / Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Natasha Romanoff and Hawkeye, attack a Hydra outpost in a Eastern European country of Sokovia. Hydra experimented on two twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff. After Hydra's base is overrun, Stark gets Loki's scepter and takes a gem from it in order to create an artificial intelligence, "Ultron", used as a global defense program. However, Ultron takes on a robot body, goes insane and decides to wipe out mankind. Ultron uses his powers to carve up a giant city in Sokovia and fly the land up in order to crash it on Earth like a meteorite, but Stark's other program, J.A.R.V.I.S., in a synthetic body, stops and kills Ultron. The landmass is destroyed in an explosion before impact.

The sequel to the overhyped, but OK superhero hit "Avengers", "Age of Ultron" decided to change a few of the ingredients: while the 1st film seemed without weight or real excitement, since the superheroes just fight off hundreds of villains without a single scratch, almost as a minor "inconvenience", here the stakes have been raised a bit, with the protagonists getting challenged and one character even dies. Moreover, the main villain, Ultron, is actually their own creation gone crazy, which at least gives a few crumbs of a subversive touch in showing that these guys are not always ideal. Still, a few typical flaws and cliches were not avoided, including a too rushed finale (the scenes unravel too fast, without giving time for the characters to express awe and wonder) and a CGI overkill, whereas it seems they crammed too many Marvel superheros: as a consequence, this seems like a play with too many kids and too little lines for them all.

The best parts are when these characters interact, with one comical moment involving Thor saying that nobody can lift up his hammer, so the guys, including Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, all "accept the challenge" and try to lift it, but it won't budge, and thus later even speculate about its laws ("But if you put the hammer in an elevator?" - "It will still go up!"). There is a neat sequence where the Avengers hide in a desolate house, where Hawkeye's wife and kids live peacefully. There are some small sparks of awe as the kids look curiously at the superheroes, with the girl even calling Natasha "aunt". This is contrasted with a dark scene when Natasha later admits that she was sterilized after her training, giving weight to her character who yearns for kids and a potential family. Unfortunately, except for that, she is a one-dimensional extra for the rest of the film, since it takes ten movies to finally give her some character development. There are a few other comical one-liners that give the story some freshness and vitality (Ultron's robot mocks Captain America for helping civilians: "You can't save them all! You'll never...!", but Captain just interrupts him by throwing his shield at the robot and throwing him down the cliff, just to then casually reply: ""You'll never what?" You didn't finish!") but the villain's motivation is terribly confusing (why does he think that destroying mankind in a giant explosion will save the world?) whereas more highlights would have been welcomed in the rather standard story which is just a neverending repackaging of Marvel's other superhero movies.

Grade;++

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Three Men of Melita Žganjer

Tri muškarca Melite Žganjer; comedy, Croatia, 1998; D: Snježana Tribuson, S: Mirjana Rogina, Sanja Vejnović, Suzana Nikolić, Goran Navojec, Filip Šovagović, Ivo Gregurević, Ljubomir Kerekeš, Ena Begović, Rene Bitorajac

Even though she adores the Mexican soap opera "Slave of Love", the overweight Melita does not have luck with love in her own life. She works in a pastry shop and likes Janko, a cook who delivers cakes to the place, but he is ashamed to say a single word because he stutters. Melita's two friends, Eva and Višnja, try to find her a boyfriend, but to no avail. A man, Jura, seduces Melita and sleeps over at her place, but only because his wife divorced him and he had no place to stay. Finally, Juan, the actor from "Slave of Love", arrives to Zagreb to shoot a film, and Melita meets him while playing an extra. However, he disappoints her as well when he pays more attention to his lost sunglasses, so Melita cries and runs towards Janko for comfort. This helps her to finally start a relationship with Janko.

One of the most famous films directed by female filmmaker Snjezana Tribuson, this Croatian forerunner to "Bridget Jones' Diary" is a sympathetic little comedy that refuses to be primitive or rely on swearing, as it was often the case with many other Croatian comedies of that time, and instead gives a straightforward story about the problems of a modern, overweight woman trying to find love. The opening sequence starts off with a brilliant gag: Melita is meticulously placing paper clips in different colors to create a collage of flowers and meadows on a sheet, yet as soon as her friend opens the door to calls her for lunch, the draft blows out all the clips away from paper in a second. "The Three Men of Melita Žganjer" is divided, congruently, into three chapters, and the first chapter of the story works the best, entertaining with a wide range of jokes and puns (for instance, Melita tries to lose some pounds through exercise, but as she tries to do pull-ups, the pole above collapses from her weight), yet the second and third chapter feature a lot less highlights, offering only routine "entertainment-light". Many scenes unravel, yet they do not feature a worthy pay-off, and even the heroine's encounter with her idol from a soap opera does not amount to much (despite a great performance by Filip Sovagovic who does a fantastic Spanish accent). One of the funniest moments can only be found near the finale, when Melita and the shy Janko finally start to talk because she cried, and Janko's friend cautiously backs away with the two women, as to not interfere with this sudden "breakthrough". The story runs out of ideas after 40 minutes, yet it is still a decent and neat fun, with excellent actors, Ivo Gregurevic delivering another highlight as Jura.

Grade:++

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau; science-fiction drama, USA, 2011; D: George Nolfi, S: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stramp

New York. Congressman David Norris accidentally meets a mysterious woman, Elise, who kisses him, but suddenly runs away. Inspired by this, he dumps his in advance prepared speech and instead delivers an honest one in front of the audience, which makes him a star overnight. Some time later, David meets Elise again in a bus and gets her phone number, but mysterious people kidnap him and warn him not to see her again, because they are the "Adjustment Bureau", an organization that runs the grand scheme of the destiny of the world for humans, dictated by the Chairman, and threaten David to erase his brain if he tells anyone about them. Thee years later, David accidentally meets Elise again and they start a relationship. Harry, one of the "men with hats", helps David run away with her, even though the plan envisaged for them to never meet again. David persists, and after a chase, the men with hats allow him to be with Elise.

More than anything, science-fiction drama "The Adjustment Bureau" is an allegory on the trials and tribulations of ordinary people who have to overcome all odds against the "invisible fingers" of destiny to achieve their goal, and as such it should be treated more symbolically than realistically, which somewhat vindicates the lack of explanation or details of the mysterious "men with hats", some sort of modern day Moirai, who tailor the lives of humanity irrespective of their wishes. The schemes of the men with hats, who use various "accidents" to prevent David from seeing Elise (among others, a power outage, which prevents him from phoning her; or a car crash that conveniently slows him down) are a little bit too similar to the ones used by TV producers who wanted to stop Truman from leaving the city in "The Truman Show", which makes this a little bit standard, whereas the dialogues were rather bland, ordinary and routine. For such a high concept, not all of the rich possibilities were exploited to the fullest. Still, the two main actors, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, have charm while interacting, whereas the movie carries a sympathetic and sweet little message across, a one about how friendship, loyalty, love and determination can sometimes be stronger than fatalism and bleak doom.

Grade;++